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April 18, 2021

Overcoming unimaginable tragedy

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An inspiration: Scarlett Lewis.
An inspiration: Scarlett Lewis.


Mandy Nolan

Almost two years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a lone gunman murdered 20 children, many of them first-graders, and six adults. When the police turned up, Adam Lanza turned the gun on himself.

For many of us this kind of tragedy is unimaginable, and how a surviving parent or sibling manages to make sense of life, or even start to heal, is unfathomable. Scarlett Lewis is an inspiration.

On the morning of December 14, 2012, Scarlett said good bye to her first-grader son Jesse. Six-year-old Jesse never returned.

‘Right after the tragedy, I asked myself the same two questions: how could something like this happen and what could I personally do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ Scarlett said.

Since the loss of her son, she established the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to teach the simple message of choosing love over anger.

‘My personal thought was the tragedy started with an angry thought in the shooter’s head. I pictured him as a little boy having an angry thought without the tools from a nurturing environment to handle that.

‘Anger can snowball if left unchecked. It can lead to rage, and it can negatively impact us on a cellular level; it can change our biology.

‘I believe that rage leads to acts of violence. I believe that is what led to the act of violence. The amazing thing is a thought can be changed; at any point in Adam’s life, his anger could have been changed.

‘I wanted to start a movement to help people and children understand they are not their angry thoughts and they can change.’

And so began Scarlett Lewis’s healing journey to forgive her son’s killer.

‘Three days after Jesse was murdered, I got up at the memorial service and told them my theory. I told them I believed it had started as one angry thought in Adam Lanza’s head. Everyone has asked what can we do for you?

‘I asked that people consciously change one angry thought into a loving thought every day. It will make you happier and make it a peaceful world.

Change thoughts

‘People left the memorial service and I got feedback a week later that people took that message to heart.’

Scarlett believes we are not given the necessary tools to manage complex emotions like anger.

‘For children, it’s not just academic learning that is important – it’s the social and emotional learning. It’s understanding our feelings and why we have them and what we do with them.

‘It’s moral awareness, mindfulness, character value and understanding how our brain works. When we have our angry thoughts, we can understand how they hijack our brain and how we can self-regulate.

‘Our education system has never addressed these questions, and in the end it’s more important than academics.’

As part of her family’s healing, Scarlett and her son JT become involved with Rwandan genocide survivors.

Rwandan story

‘They reached out via Skype through an interpreter and told JT and me their story. At this point I hadn’t gone back to work and JT hadn’t gone back to school.

‘Our friends kept trying to tell us we we would be okay but we knew they hadn’t experienced a devastating loss.

‘But here were young people with a legitimacy. People who had experienced something far worse than us in their life.

‘They told JT they were sorry to hear about his brother and shared their personal stories. One girl, Chantall, had witnessed her entire family being murdered at eight.

‘She then had her throat slit and was buried alive in a shallow grave with her family.

‘She had to hide for days, she dug her way out and found her way to an orphanage. After her physical wounds had healed, she felt incredible gratitude for the walls, the food and made the conscious choice to forgive the people who had murdered her family, otherwise she would go down the same path as the perpetrators. She told us that her healing was the act of forgiving.’

The conscious choice to forgive

‘That night JT and I sat down and talked about things we had that we were grateful for. We both made the conscious choice to forgive so we wouldn’t stay in the pit of anger and despair.’

Her son JT then went on to set up a non-profit organisation to help young Rwandans attend college.

Scarlett believes that being in the service of others is where we heal. ‘It’s the most healing thing we can do – to be in the service of others.

Jesse Lewis may have died on 14 December 2012, but short six years have inspired many to live a better life.

‘The mission of the foundation started when I saw a message Jesse had written on our kitchen chalkboard just days before he died,’ says Lewis.

‘He had written “nurturing healing love”. I found it after he died. I knew immediately that he had a spiritual knowing that he wasn’t going to be here much longer and that he wanted to leave a message of comfort. And that message was meant for the world because it is what we need to move towards.

‘Jesse was a force to be reckoned with… and in the end it’s not the length of your life, it’s what you do with it.’

Scarlett Lewis is a featured speaker at Uplift Festival at the Byron Region Sport & Recreation Centre, Ewingsdale Rd, 11–14 December. For more infoormation visit www.upliftfestival.com.

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